No, it’s not Covid-19 — science assures us the risk of catching the novel coronavirus that way is miniscule.
The report, entitled “Packaged in Pollution: Are food chains using PFAS in packaging?,” was released Thursday.
Testing by the groups revealed toxic PFAS substances — man-made perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals — in the food packaging of Burger King’s “Whopper,” chicken nuggets and cookies; in Wendy’s paper bags; and in McDonald’s wrappers for the “Big Mac,” french fries and cookies.
“As the largest fast-food chain in the world, McDonald’s has a responsibility to its customers to keep them safe. These dangerous chemicals don’t belong in its food packaging. I, for one, am NOT ‘lovin’ it,'” said Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director, in a statement.
In addition, so-called “environmentally friendly” molded fiber bowls and containers sold by the Mediterranean culinary chain Cava, the Canadian restaurant franchise Freshii and fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen tested extremely high for PFAS, according to the report.
In fact, paper-fiber containers showed the highest levels of any packaging tested.
“Ecologically friendly doesn’t mean human health friendly. Those are two different considerations,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, chief of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone, who was not involved in the study. “This example in the report really brings that home.”
However, not all of the tested wrappings contained these dangerous chemicals. Paperboard cartons or clamshells for French fries, potato tots and fried chicken pieces sold at the three burger chains all tested below the screening level, the report found.
“This is a very clear demonstration that chemicals that are present in our food packaging don’t have to be,” said microbiologist Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.
“In other words, you can make things that don’t have to have this stuff in it,” said Birnbaum, who was not involved in the report.
McDonald’s Corporation sent the following statement: “We’ve eliminated significant subset classes of PFASs from McDonald’s food packaging across the world. We know there is more progress to be made across the industry and we are exploring opportunities with our supplier partners to go further.”
CNN reached out to the other two companies but did not receive a response before our publication deadline.
What are PFAS?
The PFAS chemicals are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, which do not degrade in the environment.
PFAS chemicals are used in all sorts of products we purchase: Nonstick cookware, infection-resistant surgical gowns and drapes, cell phones, semi-conductors, commercial aircraft and low-emissions vehicles.
The chemicals are also used to make carpeting, clothing, furniture and food packaging resistant to stains, water and grease damage. Foods which contain a lot of grease — such as burgers, fries and cookies — are prime candidates for wrappers made with PFAS.
“Maybe that’s something that we all as consumers need to think about,” Birnbaum said. “Is it more important to have PFAS wrappings on our food to prevent grease soaking through? Or do we just accept that as something that we deal with?”
The PFAS chemicals in food wrappers and containers are part of the newer generation, made with 4- or 6-carbon chains to replace the rejected 8-chain PFOA and PFOS versions.
However, newer forms appear to have many of the dangerous health effects as the older versions, say experts, leaving consumers and the environment still at risk.
“So they went to the shorter chain carbons, and you study them, and they do just about the same thing,” Birnbaum said. “Why would we think that you can make a very minor change in a molecule you are manufacturing and the body wouldn’t react in the same way?
“This is a whole pattern of what has been happening,” Birnbaum added. “Some people call it the ‘Wack-a-Mole’ problem, others call it the chemical conveyor belt. We don’t really require adequate safety testing before things are put on the market.”
It’s also hard to keep track of the substances in “the chemical Whack-a-Mole,” Trasande added.
“It’s not to say that there aren’t others down the pike that may have the same kind of problems,” he said. “Because we innovate our chemical structures and that may help get past the US Food and Drug Administration regulatory loophole and get usability for food contact.”
Health dangers of PFAS
There is extensive evidence of the harm PFAS substances can do to the body, as well as to the environment. Research over the last decade has found exposure to PFAS to be associated with liver damage, immune disorders, cancer and endocrine disruption — meaning they mimic or interfere with the body’s natural hormone processes.
The packaging continues to damage the environment and human health after its been discarded, contaminating drinking water, food and air. Even if a person avoids PFAS in their own home, evidence shows that these chemicals still enter the environment, experts say, where they can make their way back to people.
Many more examples
This is not the first report to find such chemicals in our food packaging.
Over a third of the samples tested at levels far above what is considered to be acceptable, the study found.
“The biggest reason why it’s been slow going is not a lack of effort by these non-profit organizations, or a lack of concern by consumers, but because there is no requirement by the FDA to systematically test these products,” Trasande said.
“They come to market without the kind of toxicology testing and pre-market testing for safety that we truly need.”
Vote with pocketbook
What’s to be done? As it turns out, consumers have a lot of clout when it comes to voting with their pocketbooks.
“When the consumer pushes back, it makes a difference,” Birnbaum said. “For example, Home Depot announced last year they were no longer going to sell stain-resistant carpeting because they were getting push back from buyers.”
“The same happened with flame retardants in mattresses, about 10 or 15 years ago, when people said I don’t want to find flame retardant in my mattress,” she added. “And the reason the FDA finally banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups was because new mothers were saying, ‘I don’t want BPA near my baby,’ and refusing to buy things with it.”
Trasande agrees: “The few data that have been published have driven relatively rapid change. I remember when one of the reports came out about two supermarket chains with their buffet-style food packaging. And literally weeks later on Instagram and Facebook, they announced they had swapped out their materials for PFAS-free.
“We know that companies respond to consumer concerns because they’re tied to profit margin and market share,” Trasande said.
These moves come on the heels of an FDA analysis from earlier this year that found certain PFAS chemicals used in food packaging could be found in drinking water and one last year finding the chemicals were persistent in human diets.
More needs to be done, say experts, which requires educating the public on the dangers of PFAS chemicals to both human health and the environment.
“I don’t think people want necessarily chemicals in their food that are going to get into their body and maybe cause health effects or last a long, long time in the environment,” Birnbaum said. “But I don’t think people know that.”
CNN’s Nadia Kounag contributed to this report.